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Software Patents and the FTC’s Red Herring

Posted in Patents at 11:24 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Red herring

Summary: The core problem with the USPTO remains unchallenged because the wrong problem — or a symptom rather — is being described and slowly addressed

The USPTO has been harbouring a culture of patenting, motivated for the most part by large corporations’ desire to have mechanisms of protectionism in place, barring or weighing down emerging competition (sometimes domestic but especially foreign). The illusion of a ‘free market’ should be warped to speak of unregulated markets where large corporations are free to do as they please, always assured that the government that they pay will protect them when the need arises, be it by patent monopolies or even espionage overseas (see Cablegate on Boeing for examples). In this culture where offices like the patent office are run by people who came from large corporations (revolving doors) it is not surprising that even so-called ‘reforms’ are structured to benefit large corporations.

According to this report from the corporate media, the US government (a branch of it) “said it created a pilot program in which its six administrative judges will in some cases determine within 100 days if companies that sue for infringement have adequate U.S. production, research or licensing to use the court.”

“In this culture where offices like the patent office are run by people who came from large corporations (revolving doors) it is not surprising that even so-called ‘reforms’ are structured to benefit large corporations.”This is not the right thing to do [1, 2, 3, 4]. What they need to do is assess the quality and especially the scope of the patents, irrespective of the plaintiff. They are doing a sort of ad hominem disservice by looking at a real issue which is nevertheless not the core issue.

Well, citing the pro-software patents blog that lobbies on scope and defends trolls, Groklaw names David Kappos, former head of the USPTO and an IBM faithful. Pamela Jones writes: “This is why Kappos failed. He misunderstood what the criticism of the patent system is about. It has *nothing* to do with a reluctance to pay. It’s about protecting innovation in a system that has allowed such broad functional claiming, blocking off entire areas of software development, that no one can innovate safely any more. That damages the patent system and the economy and it brings innovation to a halt. The rest is ideology and daydreams.”

The FTC is not going to resolve the overall problem even if it tackles patent trolls. The problem is not correctly identified, just a symptom of this problem. As some wise person noted the other day, there is no good understanding of these issues, so the commission will fail. To quote:

First, it notes that the chairwoman of the FTC is expected to recommend an investigation of patent trolls (or “frivolous patent lawsuits” as specified in the headline). The promised further action has not been confirmed, so we will have to wait and see.

The Times then slid around the “patent troll” name and henceforth called them by the less pejorative “patent-assertion entity” or PAE. Still, adding some weight to the promise of action was the “several executive orders” from President Obama “directing executive agencies to take steps to take steps to ‘protect innovators from frivolous litigation.’”

The article goes on to describe patent trolls as typically having no operations other than collecting royalties on patents and says that they accounted for more than 60 percent of the roughly 4,000 patent lawsuits filed last year, up from 29 percent two years earlier.

But then the article notes one company that calls itself a “patent-licensing company,” raising the question of “what’s in a name”.

In any case, the Times expects the full commission (two Democrats and two Republicans, with one seat empty), to approve a study.

What they fail to see is that a large company like Microsoft is also engaged in patent assertion. Some say Microsoft makes billions of dollars this way, at the expense of those who actually sell products that customers want. It makes Microsoft not all that different from patent trolls. Sometimes Microsoft uses a proxy like Vringo, which Troll Tracker describes as follows today:

But is that really what Vringo is doing? Are they taking someone’s IP and making something useful out of it, because that person/company cannot? Or are they taking patents that were sold to them by, oh, I dunno, Microsoft just for instance, and using them as a bully stick with which to beat other companies who have already manufactured something of good use and likely didn’t even infringe but will settle so they don’t have to litigate? That’s what would be a bad thing, right?

To get an example of classic patent trolls, see this new article from Joe Mullin, who says that “With so many patents out there claiming rights to basic Web-based technologies, at this point there aren’t many businesses in America that are unaffected by so-called “patent trolls.” But one troll, ArrivalStar, found a fresh set of targets that earned it serious scorn: public transit systems.”

Here is another article about it. “For several years now,” it says, “a curious company called ArrivalStar – which has no website, appears to produce nothing, and is oddly registered in Luxembourg – has been systematically suing public transit agencies in the United States. As we wrote last April, the company holds a collection of dubious patents tied to the technology of tracking vehicles in motion. And it has been using them to claim patent infringement by transit agencies that … track vehicles in motion.”

“At the end of the day the largest corporations will benefit and everyone else will suffer even more.”This is starting to get a lot of national coverage.Public transit agencies across US say they’re being squeezed by questionable patent lawsuits, according to the Washington Post. Another article says that “A patent holding company has filed eight lawsuits against U.S. banking institutions in recent weeks, claiming patent infringement on products and services related to security and electronic banking.”

What makes this troll a problem is that it hurts the rich, and therefore politicians will go after it with great passion. To Quote further: “In some cases, the patents mentioned in these suits are alleged to cover basic banking functions and features used in ATM and online-banking transactions. In other cases, even cryptography methods used to conform to security standards, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, have been brought into question, Denaro says.”

A simple ban on software and business method patents would resolve this, but the government goes after those entities not because of their patents but because of their business model. What a red herring this is. At the end of the day the largest corporations will benefit and everyone else will suffer even more.

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